Left and Right, Right and Wrong

A couple of questions that have been bothering me for some time now:

Why do the Democrats so consistently lose elections?  Why are Republicans in control of both sides of Congress, and why do they have a good chance of winning the Presidency in 2016?

Well, I’m certainly not an expert. I’m no political scientist. But this is still America, and I’m still allowed to have opinions, no matter how unqualified I might be.

So here’s what I’ve come up with …

In a fight, the surest way to get your ass kicked is to underestimate your opponent. The second surest way to get your ass kicked is not having a plan of attack.  It doesn’t matter how much bigger or stronger you might be, do these two things and you’ll likely lose.  And this is where the Democrats consistently fail.

The Republicans have more money and power behind them, although the Democrats have been more effective in raising money in recent elections, narrowing the gap.  The Democrats have a larger base and their values are more in step with more Americans.

So here we are, at the beginning of the 2016 Presidential campaign, and the front runner for the Republicans is Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, while for the Democrats, the front runner is former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

On the surface, and in the current poll numbers, it doesn’t seem to be much of a match.  Walker is relatively unknown outside of Wisconsin, has an unexceptional record and limited experience, is a college drop-out, and a rookie on the national political stage.  Clinton is currently clobbering Walker in the polls.

But the last thing Democrats should do is feel comfortable and relax.

Over the past thirty years or so, the Democrats have lost their largest and most powerful demographic, the white working class, to the Republicans.  How did this happen? On the surface, it doesn’t make sense. Republican policies enacted over the past thirty five years have resulted in their loss of income, higher unemployment, greater debt, unprecedented class erosion, and diminished individual rights.  Yet this constituency has become the heart and soul of the Republican Party, aligning with the very same corporate masters and tycoons who have taken these things from them.

So why has the white, working class become more conservative?  Democrats struggle to understand this and until they do, they’ll be unable to adopt an effective plan to reverse it. One thing is clear: this demographic is not stupid, apathetic, lazy, or racist, as liberals too often tend to dismiss them.  This only feeds into the Republican portrayal of the left.

The conservative movement has effectively depicted the Democrats as upper class, elitist, arrogant, permissive, and immoral.  The right makes emotional appeals based upon this and drives home the point that they are being threatened, that liberals want their guns, that immigrants want their jobs, that minorities want preferential treatment. They’re told that conservatives share their values of hard work, self-determination, and morality, and that all of these things are under siege from the left.

Elements of pop culture are held up as examples.  Rap music reinforces the image of inner city African Americans as violent gangsters to be feared.  Hollywood is portrayed as elite and promiscuous and immoral, promoting reckless values of gay rights and graphic sexuality and violence.

These messages are driven home daily by what Hillary Clinton accurately referred to nearly twenty years ago as a “massive right wing conspiracy.”  The air waves are filled with the vitriol of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Fox “News.”  It’s amazing how consistent these talking heads are in message and how strongly they stay on point, driving home whatever their corporate commanders have deemed to be the talking points of the day.

The overall unifying message paints a picture of the world drawn in black and white, without the colors of nuance or subtlety or complexity. People buy into this message because it is constantly hammered into their brains, and it installs and intensifies primal fears. Fear has no room for ambiguity.

The reaction to the film American Sniper (which I confess I haven’t seen yet) is an illustration in point. The conservative view is that Chris Kyle was a hero, that through his killings he was saving countless other American lives, and that he suffered from the trauma of war.  These are not simplistic or unsophisticated views. What seems to be lacking in any serious discussion of the movie or Kyle is any deeper ambiguity related to questioning why we over there in the first place, or what the culture of war and militarism does to the psyche of individuals and groups, or to even suggest a level of discomfort in the counting of the confirmed number of kills of human beings.  To the conservatives, to even raise these issues is to question the heroism of Kyle, and to lump you in with the bleeding heart whiners who don’t appreciate the sacrifices of our troops.  To be clear, I haven’t seen the movie, and once I have, I might feel that these issues are moot.  But I can’t help but feel that by simply wanting to have an honest discussion about them would be worth exploring, but the right immediately shuts down at the mere suggestion of deeper complexity behind these concepts.

But the right isn’t the only side that shuts down and resorts to labeling.  I’ve seen, in disagreements about other issues, left leaning people lump intelligent and thoughtful people on the right in with the radical and hysteric tea partiers, and write them off as uneducated gun toting religious fanatics.

This is where the left fails – it doesn’t take its opposition seriously. Walker goes to London and gives non responses to questions about evolution and the left eviscerates him for it.  Then, Rudy Giuliani makes some ridiculously stupid and offensive remarks about President Obama, and Walker gives “no comment” type of replies.  The left then goes nuts about Walker, and Walker replies that he’s not going to waste any more energy responding to such nonsense, and that he prefers talking about the issues, about his bold ideas and plans.

It’s an ingenious strategy, and illustrates how the Republicans are better organized and tougher than the Democrats.  Giuliani, who is even less relevant these days than Sarah Palin, takes one for the team, and throws himself under the Walker campaign bus.  Walker stays above the fray, looking serious and presidential. The bigger the fuss the left makes about Giuliani’s idiocy and Walker’s non-committal responses, the more Walker benefits.  My recommendation would be that the left forget about Giuliani and discuss what Walker pretends to want to discuss:  the “real” issues.

But before we get to the issues, let’s take a look at what seems to be the biggest component of Walker’s strategy:  union busting. Nothing is more at the core of Walker’s platform than standing up to corrupt union bosses and the “powerful” special interests of organized labor.  Never mind that it’s an easy target – organized labor has never been weaker and union membership has never been lower.  Those union bosses and special interests have been on life support since the 1980s, since President Reagan fired the air traffic controllers, and since President Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) into law.

But that doesn’t mean organized labor won’t go down without a fight. And trust me, Walker is counting on it.  It’s another example of how the Republicans have learned how to turn opposition into opportunity.  When Walker faced recall over his removal of collective bargaining rights to public employees, he used the demonstrations in Madison to his advantage, portraying the protesters as an angry mob. In his memoir, Unintimidated, clearly written to frame him as a presidential candidate, he exaggerates threats from the protesters to a degree that would make Brian Williams blush.  It’s no coincidence that now, as he begins his presidential campaign, he proposes a state budget with insane cuts to education.

Walker and the organized right are counting on two things: loud and chaotic protests from the opposition that he can “heroically” stand up against, and the left’s usual disorganized underestimation of the right.  Both serve to energize the conservative base.  Too often the left counts on their own presumed intellectual superiority, and you’ll hear, “I can’t believe that so many people are stupid enough to vote for Walker.” The left has to stop this and recognize not only that the right is just as smart as they are, but that such comments are incredibly destructive.

So if the right is just as smart as the left, why would they vote for an idiot like Walker?  And make no doubt about it, when it comes to the issues, Walker is a complete idiot.  His bold ideas consist of a couple of shallow Koch brother talking points, and when he is forced to explain them in depth, his intellect is as exposed and shriveled as a naked man’s privates in the February Wisconsin air.

When it comes to issues, the Republicans have been extremely effective at framing discussions to twist and distort their intentions.  A few examples:

  • “Right to Work” laws: This term has come to be accepted for the union busting laws being pursued across the country, when in fact they are intended to take away worker rights; primarily, the right to collective bargaining.
  • “Job creators:” At the heart of the Republican unending faith in trickle-down economics is the premise that over burdensome taxes and regulations imposed upon corporations are impacting profits and preventing their leaders from creating more jobs. The truth is increasing corporate deregulation and lower tax rates have resulted in epic job losses, as the increase in revenues has been funneled to dividends, shareholders, and obscene bonuses paid to the CEOs and Boards of Directors. The typical mantra of any CEO is “We have to deliver value to our shareholders by doing more with less.” I’ve never heard of a CEO who said, “Our goal is to hire more workers.”
  • “Big Government:” This has become an excuse for further deregulation and more corporate autonomy.  It’s been very effective, and with the current dysfunctional, do-nothing congress being so inconsequential and incompetent, it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the alternatives to “big government” have already proven disastrous, with banking deregulation leading to the “too big to fail” collapses and bailouts. What is really needed is “effective government,” government that serves people and not corporations (which, no matter what the Supreme Court says, are two disparate entities with conflicting interests).
  • “Liberal” and “Patriot:” Republicans have effectively changed the meanings of these two incendiary words. “Liberal” has come to be associated with “un-American”, and “Patriot” is associated with Christian conservatism. These words are used to define a narrow value structure that reinforces the divisive rhetoric in the messages broadcast from party headquarters.  Look at Giuliani’s comments about President Obama this week – he claims he’s never heard Obama express a love of America (not a “patriot”) and that Obama was raised by Communists (he’s “an un-American liberal”). What’s interesting is that these ridiculous allegations have been raised for eight years now, and continue even in a Presidential campaign Obama will not be a participant in. The reason isn’t that Giuliani actually believes these things, or that they are remotely relevant to anything, but that they give an opportunity for Walker to portray himself above the fray, even as old attitudes and prejudices are reinforced.

So how do the Democrats win back the base they’ve lost? I don’t know.  I’m really not very smart.  The best I can come up with is this – the Democrats need to take the fight to the Republicans, and not stay on the ropes taking punches.  The Republicans have been very effective at making the Democrats play defense.  In 2004, they “swift boated” John Kerrey, questioning his service in Vietnam, deflecting attention from the miserable failure that was George W. Bush’s incomplete service in the Air National Guard.

I observed a local example of this a weekend or two ago on Milwaukee television, on a Sunday morning panel talk show hosted by local conservative radio personality Charlie Sykes.  The topic was related to Walker and his budget proposal to cut more than $300 million from the state university budget while at the same time proposing $220 million in new taxes to support the financing of a new arena for the NBA franchise the Milwaukee Bucks. A couple of weeks earlier, after receiving pressure from the powerful Potawatomi Indian tribe, owners and operators of a large casino in Milwaukee, Walker announced his determination to deny a proposed casino that would be managed by the Menomonee Indians in nearby Kenosha, citing concerns about increased taxes on Kenosha residents.  The Menomonees responded by offering to pay the $220 million to finance the Bucks’ stadium in return for Walker reconsidering his decision, thus eliminating a glaring inconsistency in Walker’s budget.  Walker refused to even consider the Menomonee offer, fueling speculation that his decision against the Kenosha casino was in deference to the Potawatomi rather than concern for the Kenosha tax payers. When the subject of the Menomonee offer came up on Sykes’ talk show, Sykes and the rest of the panel quickly dismissed it, saying the Menomonee offer was insincere and that Walker was correct not to entertain it.

This struck me as incredibly disingenuous, because normally, there is no quicker knee jerk reaction from Republicans than when new taxes are proposed. Imagine if the governor were a Democrat instead of Walker – Sykes and his panel would have been out of their seats and through the ceiling with righteous indignation that the tax and spend liberals refused to even consider the proposal.  But instead, with a Republican governor with presidential ambitions, their principles suddenly evaporated, and the issue was quickly swept under the rug.

And here’s where the Democrats, as usual, dropped the ball.  In the ensuing days, their silence on Walker’s willingness to tax and spend on a basketball team at the expense of the state’s education system, despite an offer from the private sector to alleviate the public burden of funding the new arena, was deafening. It was the sound of another opportunity to point out the inconsistency and insincerity of the Governor’s actions being dropped and squandered.

The Democrats need to avoid engaging the Donald Trumps, Sarah Palins and Rudy Giulianis who are designated to stir things up and distract, and call the Republicans on their lies and inconsistencies. They need to hold the Republicans accountable.  They need to play some offense from time to time.

More than anything, Democrats need to illustrate how harmful Republican policies have been to this core constituency.

On an individual level, I know from experience that it’s extremely difficult to change even one person’s mind.  It’s downright impossible if you insult or personally attack his character or intellect. But that’s what happens when we discuss politics – it almost always becomes emotional and personal.  As StevenVan Zandt once said, “what’s more personal than your politics?”

Here are some ideas on how to effectively engage someone you don’t see eye to eye with in a political discussion:

  • Show a little respect. Recognize that most of the people voting Republican are kind, decent and caring, and love their families and their country just as much as you do.  Make them understand that we all want a better world for our children, and we are more alike than different.
  • Don’t take the bait – try not to engage in the emotional divisiveness from the Limbaughs and Hannitys. Don’t make things personal. You’ll just waste time and energy and punch yourself exhausted long before you get to the final rounds.
  • Stay on point – the key is making people understand how the policies advanced by the Republicans will harm them. In Wisconsin, for example, make them understand that we have one of the best education systems, at all levels, in the country, and that Walker’s proposed budget will decimate that, and how our children and their children will suffer real and long term intellectual and economic consequences.
  • Be informed. Don’t just scratch the surface of issues, go a little deeper, and check sources. Snopes is a good resource for checking propaganda generated from both sides.
  • Be capable of objectivity. It’s highly unlikely that any individual will agree 100% with everything liberal and disagree 100% with everything conservative. Be open minded. You can’t change anyone’s mind until you’re willing to change your own.
  • Remember who we’re fighting against – it isn’t the ditto head in the next cubicle who spends his lunch hour listening to Rush – even when he spews Limbaugh’s hateful rhetoric verbatim. The enemy isn’t him, it’s the rhetoric – so don’t attack him personally.  Respectfully disagree and calmly describe what you find offensive about the remarks.
  • Be patient and strong – our opponent is bigger, stronger, and better organized than we are. We’re going to have to take a few punches and stay on our feet. Nothing demoralizes a fighter more than taking their best punch square on the jaw and standing unflinched. Be tough and hang in there.  Have a little faith.

In This Corner

One of the books on the bookshelf in my office is Dempsey, the autobiography (as told to Bob Considine and Bill Slocum) of the great heavyweight boxer Jack Dempsey.  On the inside front cover, in black ink, my grandfather wrote, “Nov. 5 1971 – To my grandson David.  I would not want you to be a prize fighter. But you should learn to defend yourself. One never knows.  Chris Gourdoux.”  Since November 5, 1971, was the day after I turned thirteen years old, I can only assume the book was given to me as a birthday gift. One of the things I remember about my grandfather was that Jack Dempsey was a hero of his.  I seem to remember a story about my grandfather meeting Dempsey once, but I can’t for the life of me remember any details.

My grandfather was born late in the nineteenth century (I can’t remember if it was 1896 or 1899), and as a young man, for a period of time, he was a boxer.  How good of a boxer he was, we can only speculate. I found him in the Boxing Records site (boxrec.com). His name is misspelled (Chris Gourdaux), but the date and being from Flambeau, Wisconsin make it unmistakably him. They have a record from only one fight, a six round draw with someone named Joe Blake from Birchwood, Wisconsin, on December 9, 1921, although I know the records are incomplete, that he had more fights than that.

Sometime after the Joe Blake match, he took over the family farm, and his fighting days were over. When I knew him, he was older and retired from both ventures, but, like we all do when we grow older, he spoke with a fondness for those days as a fighter, the days when he was young. He came to visit us in the summer of 1971. I remember asking him what he thought of the first fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, which had just taken place, and I remember him saying that he thought Ali was a better boxer, but Frazier was a stronger puncher. I also remember one warm morning stepping out on our front porch and hearing loud snorting sounds coming from the garage.  I looked in to find my seventy five year old grandfather shadow boxing, working up a good lather, and loudly breathing and snorting through his nose, still enlarged and flattened from fights that took place fifty years earlier.

My grandfather died in 1984. What has me thinking about him is a workout regime I recently started at “Go the Distance Fitness,” a small gym here in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  “Go the Distance Fitness” specializes in training boxers, and providing workouts that use boxing training methods. A friend made my wife and I aware of a report on NPR about how a gym in Rhode Island is using boxing training as a method of fighting the onslaught of Parkinson ’s disease. http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2015/02/02/381937503/fight-back-against-parkinsons-exercise-may-be-the-best-therapy   It’s the latest example of how exercise can help fight the advancement of the disease, and appealed to me immediately, as I have no patience for the treadmill or stationary bike in my basement.  I try, and within minutes I am bored to death, and thinking about that leftover burrito in the refrigerator.

The workout is called circuit training, and consists of two minute rounds at various stations.  There are curls done with weighted balls, there are various punching bags (including a speed bag and a big bag), there are crunches and medicine balls, there’s just enough to work up a good sweat and get you breathing.  It’s all go at your own pace, so if your old and out of shape like myself, you start at lower levels and expend less energy until you’re ready to pick it up a pace.

It’s perfect for me because it gets me out of the house, it isn’t too demanding, it’s fun, and it’s short enough not to become drudgery.  It seems to really help with my Parkinson’s symptoms – I’m noticing already improvements in my balance and posture after working out.  To be clear, this training isn’t designed for Parkinson’s and it’s not considered physical therapy.  It does, however, seem to be similar to other regimes, like music and dance therapy, that have been successful in helping PD patients.  The little bit I understand about the theory behind exercise and Parkinson’s is that people with Parkinson’s have a shortage of dopamine, that their brains are not producing and transmitting enough dopamine to its receptors.  What certain types of repetitive exercise do is establish a rhythm that the brain can adjust to in place of the natural rhythm of the transmission of dopamine that the disease has disrupted.  This is why dance therapy has proved so effective, and why working the speed bag, for example, should also be effective.  This is also why, I believe, that writing has been so therapeutic for me – in addition to giving voice to my anxieties, there is a cadence to writing that when you get on a roll can be downright euphoric.

In my previous post, “The Other Side of the Coin,” I was having a bad day, the combination of Parkinson’s and cabin fever having gotten to me. So far, working out at Go the Distance has helped on both counts, getting me out of the house and making me feel better.  Most importantly, it’s given me back a sense that I can fight this disease, and maybe, if I can’t beat it, like my grandfather against Joe Blake, maybe I can work my way to a draw.

My grandfather wrote, “But you should learn to defend yourself.  One never knows.” I understand now that I need to defend myself against my own willingness to give up.Putting on a pair of gloves a few times a week seems like a good place to start.

“Go the Distance Fitness” is located in Simmons Plaza at 7707 Sheridan Road in Kenosha. It is owned by Dan and Carol Ouimet. Their phone number is 262-654-2741.  Visit them on the web at  http://www.gothedistance-fitness.com/

The Other Side of the Coin

My wife and I went to Menard’s this morning, to pick up a few things for some work needed around the house.  We got there, and as we walked through the parking lot to the store, I noticed a middle aged guy walking with a limp, sliding his right leg along with him as he walked.  Inside the store I noticed another guy, this one with a facial tic that made his head bob and jerk uncontrollably.

Then I noticed another guy, around thirty years old. There was nothing unusual about him, but our eyes met, only for a moment, and I recognized that he was looking at me like I was looking at the other broken people, and I became aware that my rigidity was showing in my walk.

So I’ve joined the corps, the ranks of the broken brigade, the random and anonymous people I’ve so often times noticed in the past. I never imagined that I’d become one of them.

I’m down. I don’t have many days like this, but when I do, they’re a living Hell. I wallow and mope. I am aware of how much my rigid body aches, and the usual coping mechanisms fall short.

On days like today, I tell myself that this wasn’t part of the deal, the aching, the rigidity, the drooling, the losses of balance, the fatigue. I never asked for any of this. All the things I usually tell myself feel like bald faced lies. On better days, I always remind myself that there are any number of people out there who have it a whole lot worse, who’d give anything to trade places with me. But today that argument falls flat, and I can only see myself like I could have been, like I was supposed to be, if not for this fucking disease. The accumulation of things lost becomes overwhelming.

It’s winter and there isn’t a whole lot to do outside. The ground is covered with several inches of snow that drifts up to a couple of feet in some areas, making just walking around the yard a dicey proposition with my impaired sense of balance.  During the weekdays I am alone with my dogs in the house. Cabin fever is definitely setting in.

My fear on days like today is that it’s not me. I look in the mirror and I don’t recognize the pathetic loser staring back at me. There’s no spark of resistance, no fight in his eyes. This is what scares me the most – that eventually, days like this will become the norm and not the exception, and I’ll have given up, admitting defeat.

But, in the immortal words of Scarlett O’Hara, “tomorrow is another day.” It may sound corny and naïve, but sometimes, corny and naïve are all you’ve got.